Caroline Pidgeon MBE AM, leader of the Liberal Democrat group in the London Assembly, says the Mayor’s approach to selling off former police stations is inconsistent with his own stated aim to boost the levels of affordable housing in London and may not achieve best long-term value for the taxpayer.
Many local residents, and their representatives, including Liberal Democrat councillors and campaigners, have been against the closure of police stations and front counters, campaigning to keep them as part of a vital infrastructure to keep London safe. However, the Mayor’s made his decision to close and sell off our police buildings in London – so what happens now?
If you are an avid reader of the property pages you might have noticed that dozens of London’s now former police stations are up for sale at commercial rates. The Met’s agents Knight Frank are currently marketing some 27 properties, which is just the start of the sell-off of nearly 200 police buildings across the capital.
It should also be noted that alongside the sell-off of former police stations the Mayor is also selling some 600 residential properties which have been rented out as accommodation for police officers. The Mayor is selling these properties on the open market in some cases, rather than back to the housing associations that currently manage them. This means that opportunities to increase London’s affordable housing supply are being lost in the quest for the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime to get “best value” from the sales.“
Obviously for the Met this is about generating the maximum income that they can to help meet large savings targets. From Hampstead and Highgate, to Hackney they are selling off some prime pieces of real estate, freehold.
However it’s worth asking whether, for maximum returns, they are going about it in the right way.
MOPAC (the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime) has put a ‘forward sale clawback’ clause into the sales – meaning that MOPAC will get 50% of the uplift in value if the sites (but not individual units) are sold on within 5 years – which should go some way to ensuring they benefit from any short term gains investors make by sitting on a site waiting for London’s property market to do its work.
But there is a real risk that by selling these complex and often listed sites without planning permissions for change of use to residential or other use, and outline permissions for new buildings on the sites (maximising the large swathes of what have until recently been police car parks) the Mayor will get much less for these sites than they are really worth.
It’s interesting to note that Transport for London, another body controlled by the Mayor, is taking a different approach. TfL has recently announced the sale of their art deco headquarters at 55 Broadway near St James’ Park, but instead of selling to developers, TfL has put out a call for architects to come up with plans for the conversion of the building, with TfL themselves leading on the planning application and listed building approval process to make sure it’s a “commercial success”.
In selling all of these buildings the Met and the Mayor are also potentially losing a source of income. I have asked the Mayor a lot of questions about these property sales, including about whether, in the longer term, the Met would gain more from keeping the freeholds of some sites (such as Hampstead) and/or leasing properties in some cases. He replied that “in some cases the five year forward sale clause may not be sufficient to ensure value for money”, confirming that “Long term leases or simply keeping the freehold for disposal at a later date may provide better value for money for MOPAC and the taxpayer in the long term”. Yet all the police stations on the market at the moment are being sold freehold.
It could be argued that the Met are not property developers, and might not want to get into that business. However the Greater London Authority is. The Mayor has set up a ‘Single Property Unit’ which is meant to be working across his empire, including the Met, Fire, TfL and other bodies to use the GLA’s land to promote economic growth, job creation and provide new homes. It might also consider the issue of the chronic need for more school places in the capital.
Putting aside all my concerns about the closures of police stations and front counters this is my big issue with the police station sell off – that it’s happening in isolation from all of the Mayor’s promises about using the GLA’s land and assets to help solve London’s housing problems. In his recent 20:20 vision the Mayor said “the shortage of housing Londoners can afford” is “the gravest crisis the city faces”.
But in going to the open market, without any kind of plan for these sites, the risk is that these police sites formerly of community benefit will turn into luxury flats probably sold to foreign investors. When these buildings could be providing hundreds of affordable homes and new community or educational spaces – the current 27 police stations being sold could turn into about 650 affordable homes.
I asked the Mayor about using the police estate to deliver affordable housing and he said “where commercially viable, wider GLA priorities can be reflected in disposals”. Which I have to say is hardly a firm commitment and shows how once again the Mayor’s words and actions don’t match. He needs to use the land and buildings he owns to help address the crisis of the lack of affordable housing.
I won’t hold my breath.